BLUEBEARD 5

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BLUEBEARD 5, the sole remaining RH-53D survivor of Operation EAGLE CLAW

There is a rare and unique helicopter that sits vigilant as a gate guardian at the Wrightstown Gate of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JB MDL) in New Jersey. However, the very existence of this helicopter and how it become displayed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst New Jersey is an interesting story.

Those familiar with the Sikorsky H-53 family of aircraft may have trouble identifying this particular aircraft model. This H-53 is a short fuselage model equipped with two engines and an in-flight refueling probe. It’s appearance strongly resembles a U.S. Air Force HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giant. It is however displayed in a Marine Corps color scheme from the early 1980’s. Even more peculiar is this Sikorsky began its service life with the U.S. Navy. This aircraft is a RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter, bureau number (BuNo) 158754.

BLUEBEARD 5

What is not well-known is that the RH-53D served with both the Navy and the Marines. The Sikorsky RH-53D was developed in 1973 to fulfill the Navy’s need for an upgraded Airborne Mine Counter Measures (AMCM) helicopter. The Navy borrowed nine CH-53D’s from the Marine Corps and converted them to the RH-53D model for testing. After the trials were completed the Navy ordered thirty new build RH-53D’s from Sikorsky. By 1990 the Navy acquired the newer and more powerful CH/MH-53E model for AMCM duty. The Navy divested their RH-53D’s to the Marine Corps Reserve so they could retire their aging CH-53A.

BLUEBEARD 5

The Marine Reserve Squadrons flew the RH-53D until they acquired their own CH-53E’s, retiring the last of the RH-53D’s in 1997. This aircraft’s final duty station was with Marine Heavy Helicopter Reserve Squadron (HMH-772) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Willow Grove in Horsham Pennsylvania. When it was retired, this aircraft was put on display there. With the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) of NAS Willow Grove, both HMH-772 and this static display were relocated to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey in 2011.

Except for a small plaque at the base of this RH-53D, very few would ever know of the lasting impact that this very aircraft had upon U.S. Military Special Operations (SPECOPS).

April 24th marks 40 years since the launch of Operation Eagle Claw, the attempted rescue of American Hostages from Tehran Iran. This Sea Stallion is one of the eight U.S. Navy RH-53D’s that participated on the mission. It is infamously known by its mission callsign of BLUEBEARD 5.

The mission plan called for the rescued hostages and Delta Force to evacuate Tehran aboard the helicopters to Manzariyeh Airport south of Tehran. Once there and safely upon the two awaiting U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifters, Delta Force was to destroy all of the helicopters with thermite grenades.

In November 1979 the Operations Planning Group (OPG) were tasked with creating a military rescue plan. The OPG first considered the use of the U.S. Army’s CH-47 Chinook utilizing staging areas from either Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. These locations were ruled out for both political and security concerns.

Arguably as the mission was being planned in November 1979, the U.S. Air Force had the best SPECOP helicopter available. The Air Force had begun receiving the Sikorsky MH-53J ‘Pave Low III’ into its Special Operations Squadrons in March of 1979. The Pave Low III had the ability to conduct low-light, low-level, all-weather flights consistent with special forces operations. It was equipped with GPS, inertial navigation and Forward-Looking InfraRed (FLIR) thermal imaging and an APQ-158 terrain-following and avoidance radar. It also had improved armor protection for the crew and the aircraft systems. However, the MH-53J was judged to be an unproven technology. It also was unable to fold its tail and rotors, a crucial requirement for shipboard storage.

File Photo: RH-53D in later US Navy use

Ultimately the Operations Planning Group selected a similar airframe, the Navy’s RH-53D Sea Stallion. With operational security (OPSEC) heavily factoring into the selection, it was believed by the OPG that the presence of a Navy helicopter force aboard a carrier wouldn’t draw suspicion. A cover story of their presence could be easily explained away as mine sweeping duty. More importantly, the RH-53D had the required payload, range and was capable of being launched and stored aboard an aircraft carrier. The Navy’s airframes would eventually have their glossy paint schemes camouflaged in a flat brown paint absent of any markings. Coincidentally, the Iranian Navy operated six RH-53D helicopters, so the appearance of a RH-53D in Iranian airspace would not necessarily be cause for alarm.

The eight aircraft selected were from Navy Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron HM-16 (HELMINERON 16) stationed at NAS Norfolk’s Chambers Field. The participating helicopters would all be known on the mission by their callsigns: BLUEBEARD 1 – 8 (Bureau Numbers (BuNo) 158744, 158750, 158753, 158754, 158758, 158761, 158686, and 158693).

Within two weeks of the start of the crisis, six of the helicopters were rapidly airlifted to the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. As the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk passed within range of the island the helicopters were flown aboard. These six helicopters were later transferred aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz when it arrived on station. The Nimitz already having two RH-53D’s aboard boosted the force to eight aircraft.

It was wrongly assumed that using an already established Navy helicopter unit would give the mission the quickest possibility of launching a rescue mission. This notion was quickly dispelled as the Navy flight crews did not have any assault training. The Navy crews were only experienced with conducting mine sweeping and onboard replenishment missions. U.S. Marine Corps CH-53 pilots and crews were quickly brought onboard to help the Navy crews get up to speed with the mission parameters. This however still did not garner the results the mission planners were hoping for. Since the rescue mission could be launched at any time, more pilots and crews were recruited from the Marine Corps. Eventually all eight RH-53D’s would be crewed by Marines assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron Four-Six-One (HMH 461), Task Force 1-79.

BLUEBEARD 5

BLUEBEARD 1 – 6 did the bulk of the training for the mission as BLUEBEARD 7 and 8 were resigned to being ‘Hanger Queens’. This meant they were cannibalized for parts to keep BLUEBEARD 1 – 6 flying. Just before the mission there was an all-out effort to get BLUEBEARD 7 and 8 flight worthy as well.

The Air Force supported the helicopter mission directly with six EC/MC-130’s. The plan was for three EC-130E Command Solo aircraft callsigns REPUBLIC 4 – 6 to carry the logistical supplies to Desert One. Three MC-130E Combat Talon aircraft callsigns DRAGON 1 – 3 carried the Army Rangers for force protection and Delta Force to rescue the hostages.

The mission parameters and forecast for the helicopter route was for clear visibility, however that was not to be the case. The mission launched from the deck of the Nimitz in the Arabian Sea, some 50 nautical mile (NM) off of the Iranian coast. The flight route was nearly 600 NM to Desert One.

Approximately two hours into the mission BLUEBEARD 6 was the first helicopter to experience an issue. The crew encountered a BIM (Blade Inspection Method) warning light. The BIM light indicates a possible loss of nitrogen in the rotor blades and the crew was forced to make a precautionary landing. Unknown to the Marine flight crew was that the RH-53D rotor system had different operating parameters than the Marine Corps CH-53A/D. The BIM warning light on the RH-53D does not necessitate the termination of a flight as the Marine’s CH-53A/D would. The RH-53D parameters called for a reduced speed but not the termination of flight. Had the Marine aviators been aware of this BLUEBEARD 6 could have continued on. The crew of BLUEBEARD 6 sanitized and abandoned their aircraft before being rescued by BLUEBEARD 8.

Approximately four hours into the mission the flight was in the midst of a second sand storm known as a haboob. BLUEBEARD 5 began experiencing the failure of their primary flight controls and navigational systems. Additionally, their secondary flight controls were sticking in the turns. With visibility reduced to zero, BLUEBEARD 5 became separated from their wingman BLUEBEARD 7. Without use of their instruments nor any visual references, the aircraft became near impossible to fly. The crew of BLUEBEARD 5 made a decision to change their heading and descend to 50’ above the desert floor to avoid a possible mid-air collision. Despite only being 110 NM from Desert One, the crew still had to negotiate over a 9,800 foot mountain range. With fuel reserves running low, BLUEBEARD 5 was forced to abort the mission and return to the Nimitz without breaking radio silence. The crew headed for the Gulf of Oman in case they had to ditch at sea. BLUEBEARD 7 having lost sight of BLUEBEARD 5 conducted a brief search for their wingman before continuing onto Desert One.

The helicopter flight having become separated in flight, arrived at Desert One in different intervals as much as eighty-five minutes late. BLUEBEARD 3 and BLUEBEARD 4 were the first to arrive. BLUEBEARD 7 was next to arrive and presumed when BLUEBEARD 5 hadn’t arrived they must have crashed in the desert. Next to arrive was BLUEBEARD 8 with the crew of BLUEBEARD 6 aboard. BLUEBEARD 1 and BLUEBEARD 2 were last to arrive after having to put down during the haboob.

BLUEBEARD 2 (BuNo 158753) experienced hydraulic leak during the flight which resulted in a hard failure of its primary hydraulic pump. Without a spare nor the requisite time to make the repair, the crew were forced to shut down and abandon BLUEBEARD 2. There were now only five of the eight required helicopters for the mission remaining. The guidelines called for a mission abort if the minimum of six helicopters could not proceed onto Desert Two. With the mission aborted the helicopters were refueled and loaded for a return to the Nimitz.

Desert One is located within the Great Salt Desert near Tabas, Iran. When it was selected and prepared for the Desert One landing zone a few weeks earlier, the salt flat was packed hard and free of loose sand. However, weeks of sand storms covered the landing zone with ankle deep sand that was too soft for aircraft to ground taxi. This required the helicopters to hover taxi into the refueling positions behind the EC-130’s. It was during one of these maneuvers that tragedy struck. While hover taxiing the downwash of the main rotors created a brown out. The pilot’ only reference was a ground controller whom he did not recognize to be backing away from them. The pilot attempted to correct the situation and moved forward toward the ground controller. The main rotors of BLUEBEARD 3 (BuNo 158671) struck REPUBLIC 4 (Tail# 62-1809) igniting a massive fireball, destroying both aircraft and inflicting the rescue force casualties.

BLUEBEARD 1, 4 and 8 were parked near the engulfed wreckage of BLUEBEARD 3 and REPUBLIC 4. The resulting explosions from the ordinance damaged all three of the helicopters. The fire and exploding ordinance had made Desert One too dangerous to remain at. It was determined that BLUEBEARD 1, 4 and 8 were not airworthy and unsafe to sanitize.

With BLUEBEARD 2 already deemed unsafe for flight; that left BLUEBEARD 7 as the only helicopter capable of flight. The rescue force had taken casualties that were in need of advanced medical care. Their presence at Desert One had been compromised. The additional twenty or more minutes on the ground to sanitize and destroy the helicopters was time they didn’t have. The decision was made to abandon all of the helicopters in place and evacuate the rescue force aboard the remaining EC/MC-130’s to Masirah Island Oman as soon as possible.

Upon return to Masirah Island in Oman, the rescue force were greeted by two British personnel bearing two cases of beer. The cardboard case was inscribed with the heartfelt message; “To you all from us all for having the guts to try.” This message was adopted by the 8th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) and hangs today in their Headquarters at Duke Field, Eglin Air Force Base.

To the eight servicemen who gave the ultimate sacrifice on this mission, know that your sacrifice was not in vain and the lessons learned from these warriors and machines have been used to save others. We remember the Airmen of the 8th Special Operations Squadron and Marines of HMH-461 who gave all. U.S. Air Force personnel, Major Richard Bakke, Major Harold Lewis Jr., Major Lyn McIntosh, Captain Charles McMillan II and Technical Sergeant Joel C. Mayo. U.S. Marine Corps personnel, Staff Sergeant Dewey Johnson, Sergeant John Harvey and Corporal George Holmes Jr. .

“Many people would label Operation Eagle Claw a miserable failure. It was certainly a terrible tragedy, in that eight U.S. servicemen died. However to say that it was a failure would be shortsighted, for Eagle Claw ensured the future ability of the U.S. military to conduct high-risk clandestine special operations with the best SOF force in the world.” U.S.A.F. Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Richard Radvanyi.

In May of 1980 the Joint Chiefs of Staff commissioned a Special Operations Review Group of Operation Eagle Claw. The report known as the Holloway Report was chaired by Admiral James L. Holloway III, USN (Ret.). The Chairman’s report stated; “The rescue mission was a high-risk operation. People and equipment were called on to perform at the upper limits of human capacity and equipment capability.”

Planning for a second rescue mission known as Operation Honey Badger began immediately. The U.S. Army formed Task Force 158 (TF 158) in 1980. The Army began an intensive training regimen of night flying. Task Force 158 realized there was an immediate need for a Special Forces helicopter with rapid insertion and extraction capabilities. TF 158 sought out the OH-6 Cayuse which had been withdrawn from frontline duty after Vietnam. They quickly procured the Mississippi Army National Guard’s OH-6’s and modified them into the AH/MH-6 Little Bird. The AH-6 was equipped for light attack while the MH-6 could carry 6 troops on external benches.

File Photo: MH-53J Pave Low III

The Air Force ordered all nine of its MH-53J Pave Low III helicopters to Hurlburt Field at Eglin Air Force Base under the command of the 20th Special Operations Squadron. Additionally, six more HH-53B/C and eight Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) HC-130 Hercules would join the squadron. TF 158 would also join them with a contingent of Army Rangers and Delta Force. Operation Honey Badger was cancelled when the hostages were released on the morning of President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1980.

While TF 158 was never used, they had given Army aviation the enhanced ability to fight at night. The Army understood this asset was too valuable to disband. Task Force 158 was transformed into the U.S. Army’s 160th Aviation Battalion and eventually became the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) ‘Night Stalkers’.

Admiral J. L. Holloway III closed his opening statement of his report with the following statement which I believe is most appropriate. “We were often reminded as we deliberated that only the United States military, alone in the world, had the ability to accomplish what the United States planned to do. It was risky and we knew it, but is had a good chance of success and I would close with this thought, which I hope remains true forever.”

I wish to acknowledge United States Air Force Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Richard ‘Radman’ Radvanyi, whose article Operation Eagle Claw: Lessons Learned inspired this piece. I also wish to acknowledge the following reference materials; The [Iran Hostage] Rescue Mission Report (August 1980), commonly called the Holloway Report. The Praetorian Starship; The untold story of the Combat Talon by United States Air Force Colonel (Ret.) Jerry L. Thigpen. On a Steel Horse I Ride, a history of the MH-53 Pave Low helicopters in war and peace by Darrel D. Whitcomb.

For an in-depth look at current and future special operations helicopter development, see this article in expanded form in our recent post in Photorecon.net

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